February 02, 2024

2023 Wekiva River 5MR Big Year

In 2022 some friends and I competed in a year-long competition to see who could observe the most species of anything and everything within a single county as recorded in iNaturalist. I didn’t win that competition, but I explored a lot of new spots in my home County and learned a lot. Wayne Longbottom (@waynesweeds) recorded 1,583 species in Caroline County, MD, yet I only found 1,419 in Seminole County, FL. Hans Holbrook (@hholbrook) was close behind me with 1,259 species in Barnstable County, MA (See journal post on the 2022 competition).

In 2023 we were ready to do it again, but the orchestrator of the competition (@jimbrighton) wanted to mix it up. Instead of a county, how many species could we observe in a 5-mile radius circle (5MR) of our choosing? Hot dog! Not only did I have the advantage of Florida’s forever summer, but I have a lot of preserved land in my proverbial backyard. My only disadvantage was not having a coastline. My circle included Wekiwa Springs SP, Wekiva River Buffer Conservation Area, Rock Springs Run State Reserve, Lower Wekiva River Preserve SP, Sylvan Lake, and a small portion of Seminole SF. In 2022 I spent all of my time in Seminole County, yet my 5MR included portions of Orange and Lake Counties too!

The 2023 game felt different. I felt compelled to spend as much time as I could close to home, not wanting to miss short-lived blooms, or even more ephemeral mushrooms after heavy rains. By the end of the year, not only did I know where a lot of plants, fungus, and insects occurred in my local preserves, but I felt a deep sense of belonging to these spots. This was my backyard - my 5MR.

I ended the year with 1,378 species, just shy of my 2022 total for an entire county. Chase Bonanno (@chaseyb) came in second on this year’s competition with 1,101 species in her 5MR in Sarasota County, FL. Wayne Longbottom came in a close third with 1,075 species in his 5MR in Preston, MD (umbrella project for all competitors here). My annual total is just over 50% of the total number of species recorded by all iNat users in my 5MR, so I feel like there is room for improvement. I tried to walk every trail in my 5MR, and surprisingly I failed at that! However, my total was 79% of the taxonomic richness recorded by all users in my 5MR in 2023. Overall, I have observed over 700 species in my 5MR that have not been recorded by anyone else yet, so hopefully these games, aided by the iNaturalist platform, are contributing useful data.

Some of the most exciting finds included a new southernmost record for Machimus polyphemi (the Gopher Tortoise Bladetail robber fly). This robber fly lives within gopher tortoise burrows feeding on prey that also reside there; they have rarely been recorded outside the burrows. I was also thrilled to find Machimus hubbelli, a rarely encountered robber fly endemic to Florida sandhills. I was exploring Rock Springs Run Preserve with Chase in November, and she spotted the first M. hubbelli – not recognizing the species, but recognizing it as a robber fly she hadn’t seen before. Another highlight included finding a pair of Phanogomphus cavillaris (Sandhill Clubtails) at Sylvan Lake. Years ago Scott Simmons (@scottsimmons) suggested to me that Sylvan Lake may be the best remaining sand-bottomed lake in Seminole County. I’ve been checking for this species there every year since then, including searching for exuviae via kayak, but I’ve always come up empty-handed. This demonstrates how difficult it can be to detect very low-density residents!

Perhaps one of the most incredible moments of this game was when Tom Feild (@tomfeild) and Wayne Longbottom drove down from Maryland to hand off the trophy in person. Tom won the competition in 2021, and Wayne won in 2022.

The trophy is spectacular, and I am honored to house it until next year’s winner. This incredible, and movable, work of art was created by Maggii Safaty (www.maggiisarfaty.com).

Tom, Wayne, and I celebrated with a short trip to south Florida, where we found 407 species in two days. Good times!

Posted on February 02, 2024 10:02 PM by stevecollins stevecollins | 3 comments | Leave a comment

February 12, 2023

Is it Spring yet?

Spring in central Florida has more to do with the flora and fauna than the weather. Even then it can be tricky to make a clear distinction. Right now local birds are already nesting, yet our winter American Robins and Goldfinches are still here. Spring flowers are blooming, though some fall wildflowers still are too. Spring is when the pines try to pollinate your face; it's hard to ignore that harbinger of spring.

This morning my 8-year-old rode his scooter (while I rode my bike) for three miles around our neighborhood. He was excited that we saw "five to ten deer." (There were three.) I was excited by my first robber fly of the year - Laphria 'floridensis.' I also noticed several baskettails in the air, so I decided to try searching Sylvan Lake for early season dragonflies in the afternoon.

This was the first time I tried kayaking with my 8-year-old in his own kayak. He's fearless and did fantastic.

My primary target was Florida Baskettail (Epitheca stella), which flies in February and March in marsh-lined ponds, especially those with swamp sawgrass. We found several, though most other dragonflies and damselflies were in short supply. I was expecting Florida Cruisers (Didymops floridensis), and after a lot of searching, I found a single exuvia. Lilypad Forktails and Florida Bluets are out, but no Cherry or Golden Bluets.

So it's definitely spring, but there's still more to come!

Posted on February 12, 2023 12:50 AM by stevecollins stevecollins | 5 observations | 3 comments | Leave a comment

January 21, 2023

2022 Seminole County, FL Big Year!

In 2022, I was invited by some friends to participate in a friendly iNaturalist competition -- who could see the most species of anything and everything within a single county throughout the year. I selected Seminole County, FL, my home county, which is located north of Orlando. At 309 square miles, it is the third smallest county in Florida and has no coastline, but thankfully there are some fantastic preserves and parks.

I made an effort to visit most of the parks at least once, though there are a few parks that I missed. OK - maybe more than a few. My friend @scottsimmons will be dismayed that I completely skipped his favorite spot, Little Big Econ State Forest. It wasn't intentional! Here is a map of all of my 2022 observations.

I ended up with 1,404 species for the year – birds, bugs, plants, lichens, everything. That is about 80% of my Seminole County life list (1,758 species) though only 35% of the total number of species recorded in Seminole County by all users (3,992 species). Those 1,404 species were out of a total of 3,541 observations uploaded to iNaturalist. I added 738 species to my county life list in 2022. Not too shabby. [Technically we were counting taxonomic leaves and not species in this competition. So if I was able to identify something to genus, and I didn't have any other observations of that genus, it still counts as 1. If I also had another observation within that genus that was identified to species, then the first observation at the genus level wouldn't count.]

There are a few species that I added via kayak, such as searching for aquatic plants on Wekiwa Springs or when I was looking for dragonflies among the lilypads at Prairie Lake. More on that in a future post. It always feels like an adventure when I pack my net on the kayak and camera in my lap and and then try not to dunk my camera. I haven't yet -- and swinging a net from a sitting position isn't easy!

Birds: 146 species

My Seminole County life list is 258 species, so yeah – I didn’t focus on local birds. However, I did manage to add five species to my County list: Cerulean and Blue-winged Warblers (Thanks, Lori!), Philadelphia Vireo (Thanks, Scott!), Hairy Woodpecker, and Cave Swallow! The swallow was a surprise – I was trying to photograph dragonflies flying over my yard, because by Nov 1 I still didn’t have photos of Phantom or Twilight Darners for the year. There was a fairly persistent Tree Swallow flight, and then there was one that wasn’t! We also had a couple hurricanes this year, so I was able to add a few coastal terns to my year list including Sooty. Another surprise was hearing a Clapper/King Rail calling over my house one evening in May.

Mammals: 9 species
Reptiles: 21 species

Highlights were Pygmy Rattlesnake, Rough Greensnake, and Brahminy Blindsnake. The blindsnake is a tiny, introduced snake that looks like a black worm or planarian. I’ve now found a couple in the yard.

Amphibians: 6 species
Fish: 6 species
Insects: 577 species

The not-so-secret weapon for finding biodiversity is attracting insects with a blacklight or UV light. I added a mercury vapor light (e.g. a heat lamp from a pet store) to my setup this year, and I found 188 species in the backyard. I usually waited until the boys went to bed to set it up, though they loved getting out of bed and joining me in their underpants to see what the lights attracted.

Odonata: 68 species.

This is a fraction of my county life list, 81 species, but I found a few good ones: Taper-tailed Darner (Gomphaeschna antilope), Dragonhunter (Hagenius brevistylus), and Blue-striped Spreadwing (Lestes tenuatus) [found by Scott Simmons]. Fifteen of those 68 species were observed in my suburban yard, including Florida Baskettail (Epitheca stella) and Fine-lined Emerald (Somatochlora filosa).

Butterflies: 49 species, including the locally rare Eastern Pygmy-Blue, Fulvous Hairstreak, and American Snout.
Robber Flies: 18 species
Arachnids: 30 species
Mollusks: 9 species
Plants: 457 species, including 5 orchids and 8 airplants (Tillandsia)
Lichens: 68 species

I started performing UV and KOH testing toward the end of the year. Chemical tests are necessary for identification in many cases. I expect lichens to feature prominently in next year's competition!

Other Fungi: 55 species
Protozoans: 3 species

How respectable is 1,404 species? I’m not sure, though it’s more species than most individual users have recorded from populated counties in Florida. I don’t know if anyone else has tried something like this before in Florida. I was competing with some friends in other states, and I didn't win the competition. So I guess I could have done better!

One of the great things about iNaturalist is that experts and other volunteers help each other along the way. A number of folks helped me with identification, especially plants which I'm still learning. Among the many folks who helped, @jayhorn, @florida_flora, @marykeim, @tadenham, and @simonsr35 helped me the most with plants, @coolcrittersyt and @brandonwoo with grasshoppers, and @nomolosx with leafhoppers and tree hoppers. It was a fun game – one that found me furiously scanning tree bark on December 31 looking for more species.

Some of my favorite Seminole County observations throughout the year are included with this post!

All species and observations can be viewed here

Posted on January 21, 2023 11:18 PM by stevecollins stevecollins | 66 observations | 5 comments | Leave a comment

May 30, 2022

Mullet Lake - inland salt flats

Mullet Lake Park borders the St Johns River, and Mullet Lake is an oxbow between Lake Harney and Lake Jesup in northeastern Seminole County.

The park contains extensive salt flats even though the river is freshwater. Here is a map of the aquifer, which shows chloride intrusion extending inland along the St Johns River valley, which contains eastern Seminole County and Mullet Lake. (Seminole County is northeast of Orlando)

I suspect there are salt seeps in this area, which allow for salt-tolerant species to thrive next to a freshwater river. The groundwater chloride concentration according to this figure would be mesohaline (brackish).

I visited the park to check on the Eastern Pygmy-Blues I found there in 2020, and I found six individuals in different parks of the park. Their host plant are pickleweeds (Salicornia), a salt-obligate species. I also found Marl Pennant, a dragonfly that requires alkaline water, and a lot of Needham's Skimmers, which I've found to only occur in coastal, alkaline, or eutrophic waters in Florida. I expect to find Seaside Dragonlet here, but I haven't found them yet. It's interesting to see these coastal species alongside Two-striped Forceptails, a freshwater species. There also are plenty of Salt Marsh Mosquitoes here too - ha!

The highlight for me was finding a couple Brown Wasp Mantidflys (Climaciella brunnea). They are unrelated to mantids, and their mantis-like forelimbs are an example of convergent evolution.

Posted on May 30, 2022 03:47 PM by stevecollins stevecollins | 11 observations | 4 comments | Leave a comment